Monday, April 26, 2021

Don't Make Students Perform Shakespeare

So, here's my controversial and unpopular English teacher opinion: Don't ask students to read/perform Shakespeare plays out loud in class while studying them. 

Each year that I've taught The Bard's plays -- mostly the standards like Julius Caesar or Hamlet -- I've begun polling my classes, asking, "Okay, so with a show of hands, how many of you are classically trained Shakespearean actors?" You can imagine the responses. I follow by asking how many are actors, are in theater, are public speakers, are comfortable performing plays and monologues, etc. Obviously, few if any answer yes. And, after joking that we can now agree listening to them perform the play, of which they are entirely unfamiliar, would be an insult to old William and would likely literally hurt our ears and our humanities instincts, I let them know we will not be "reading" Shakespeare in the class.

Studying plays in class does not mean that students must read the roles, or even (gasp!) perform them, out loud in class. To truly appreciate the lines, they must be known well and delivered as intended. And reading over the play a night before just won't cut it, especially for young teenagers. Plays are not meant to be read, and while many people might be able to do so, it's not a particularly enlightening experience like reading an essay, novel, story, or poem can be. So, I don't waste class time with such nonsense. Plays are meant to be heard and seen. Yet simply showing the movie is too passive, especially for Shakespearean works where the language is challenging at best and undecipherable at worst for many kids. So, we listen to recordings together and work through the play, stopping and discussing and learning along the way.

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